Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Just Saying the Words?
This verse has puzzled many because it seems contrary to experience. Experience tells us that unbelievers are capable of saying the three words, “Jesus is Lord.”*
Saying the Words Sincerely?
This has led people to conclude that it must be talking about a sincere profession of Jesus as Lord. It is argued that while anyone can say the words “Jesus is Lord,” only a believer could say that with sincerity.
That view, however, also seems to be flat-out wrong. Experience tells us that there are many moral, religious unbelievers who are capable of sincerely saying and believing that Jesus is Lord. Certainly most devout Catholics and liberal Protestants sincerely believe in and profess that Jesus is Lord.
If this verse isn’t saying that unbelievers are incapable of sincerely saying Jesus is Lord, then what is it saying?
It is important to note that Paul does not say, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord unless he is born again.” Instead he says, ” No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
In Matt 7:21 Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven. . .” In context the profession of those unbelievers who say “Lord, Lord” appears to be genuine. That is, they sincerely believe that Jesus is Lord and expect Him to grant them kingdom entrance on the basis of their works (see v 22).
Similarly, in Phil 2:10-11 we learn that someday everyone- including all the unbelievers who have ever lived!- will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Except by the Holy Spirit
The ultimate question, then, is what Paul means by the limiting phrase, “except by the Holy Spirit.”
It most naturally means that whenever anyone sincerely acknowledges Jesus’ Lordship he or she does so as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in his or her life.
It is mistake of the first order to think that the Holy Spirit can only work in the lives of believers. If that were true, no one could be saved.
It is also a mistake to think that the Holy Spirit is only revealing saving truth to unbelievers. The Holy Spirit is moving unbelievers to believe (and even to profess) the truths of creation, the Trinity, the Lordship of Christ, inerrancy, Jesus’ virgin birth, His resurrection, etc.
I believed strongly in the Lordship of Christ at least a decade before I was saved. I well remember a day when I was in ninth grade when I cried out to God and asked Him to make me a zombie so that I could obey Him perfectly. I believed in and was committed to Jesus’ Lordship. I would have died for Him. Yet I thought perfect obedience was the key to obtaining eternal life and I was finding that very difficult to achieve. I was like the self-righteous unbelievers of Matt 7:21-23 who called Jesus Lord.
Jesus had some disciples who were unsaved. In John 6:64 He said to a group of His disciples, “There are some of you who do not believe.” These men had learned from Jesus and hence were rightly called His disciples. Yet they had not yet come to trust in Him for eternal life.
Likewise, there are many today who come to church to learn about God and salvation. These people are not saved until and unless they believe that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who trust Him for this (John 6:47). Even so, the Holy Spirit drew them to church and is working in their lives so that they might learn what the Scriptures have to say.
“Except by the Holy Spirit” thus means that no one can sincerely say “Jesus is Lord” unless the Holy Spirit has shown him this.
The Flip Side
This also sheds light on the flip side of the question. If a person is unwilling to say, “Jesus is Lord,” it does not prove conclusively that he is unsaved.
A Christian could be so out of fellowship with God that although he believed in Jesus’ Lordship, he was unwilling to profess it.
In fact, in my estimation a Christian potentially could backslide so far that he ceased even to believe in the Lordship of Christ. I knew a young man like that years ago during my seminary days. He was a fourth year student who was experiencing great psychological conflict. One day I heard him say that he doubted the existence of God. Shortly thereafter he dropped out of seminary and left his wife- who was nine months pregnant at the time!-for another woman.
I could relate many other such accounts but space restrictions prevent this here. Indeed, anyone who has been in the ministry for very long can give many similar examples of people who at one time were trusting in Jesus alone for eternal life and yet who later fell away from the faith.
Paul is not giving us here a litmus test of true Christians. Instead, he is giving us a litmus test of the work of the Spirit in one’s life-and that is all.
I thank God that He showed me that Jesus is Lord. However, I thank Him even more that He also showed me that Jesus gives eternal life as an absolutely free gift to all who trust Him and Him alone for that!
*The expression “Jesus is Lord” can be understood objectively (i.e., Jesus is the sovereign ruler of the universe) or subjectively (i.e., Jesus is my Master). Context suggests that Paul had the objective sense in mind.